All movement depends on the spine, so keep it supple.
Yoga is a play between strength and flexibility. This yin and yang balance is especially important in the spine, as all body movements depend on its health. Here, we’ll focus on yoga postures that encourage a supple spine.
The most obvious bestowers of spinal flexibility are backbends, and most of them simultaneously strengthen the back. They also flatten the curvature of the upper back. Forward bends, on the other hand, work by stretching the spine and flattening the curvature of the lower back. Both movements should be practiced in order to maintain the proper curvature of the spine.
The spine isn’t limited to moving only forward and backward, though; adding twists and side bends to a practice creates overall spinal flexibility.
Here are five yoga poses to put into practice for a bendy back. Remember that a healthy spine requires a balance between strength and flexibility, so these postures should be practiced with their counterposes and woven into a well-rounded sequence.
1. Forward Bend
Benefits: Also known as back stretching pose, this classical hatha version is a passive forward bend. It stretches the entire back body, increases circulation to the spinal muscles and nerves, and gives the heart a gentle massage.
Step by Step: Sit on the ground with the legs and feet together, feet relaxed. Inhale and reach the arms up. Exhale and bend forward from the hips. Reach the arms forward as you come down, making a conscious effort to stretch the back. Hold onto the outsides of the feet, ankles, or shins. Relax the neck so its curvature is in line with the rest of the spine; otherwise, you might stress the upper back, shoulders, and neck. Hold Forward Bend pose for several breaths. With each exhalation, move deeper into the bend. With each inhalation, relax a little more. Inhale to reverse out of the pose.
2. Extended Cobra pose
Benefits: In Extended Cobra pose, the hands are pushed into the floor to lift the upper body, increasing spinal flexibility. Low Cobra pose—in which the hands aren’t pushed into the floor at all—tends to work more on spinal strength.
Step by Step: Lie on the stomach with feet hip-distance apart. Place the forehead on the floor and the hands next to the chest, fingers spread wide. Inhale and push into the hands to lift the head, chest, and belly. Keep a slight bend in the elbows so the shoulders can move away from the ears. Hold Extended Cobra for several breaths. Exhale to lower.
3. Bow pose
Benefits: Much like Plow pose, Bow pose stretches the entire spine—cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral. It combines and enhances the effects of Cobra pose and Locust pose. The three should be practiced together for total spinal health.
Step by Step: Lie on the stomach with the knees hip-distance wide and forehead on the floor. Bend the knees and clasp the outsides of the ankles. Point the toes, inhale, and push the feet away. Keep the neck in line with the rest of the spine. Stay in this pose for several breaths. Exhale to release.
4. Half Spinal Twist
Sanskrit: Ardha Matsyandrasana
Benefits: In Half Spinal Twist, each vertebra is rotated to both the right and the left, increasing side-to-side mobility. This pose also increases the production of synovial fluid in the joints and rejuvenates all of the ligaments attached to the spine.
Step by Step: Sit on the heels in Thunderbolt pose. Drop the hips to the right, outside of the heels. Cross the left ankle outside of the right knee, and place the foot flat on the ground. Press the left hand into the ground behind the spine to lengthen upward. Inhale and reach the right hand up. Bend the elbow, using the arm as a lever against the knee. Exhale and twist to the left. Stay in the pose for several breaths. Inhale to untwist; then repeat on the other side.
5. Supported Triangle pose
Benefits: Triangle pose offers a lateral stretch to the spine and its surrounding muscles. We rarely stretch the spine to the side, outside of yoga, so it’s an important movement to include in any yoga sequence. This version of Triangle is most appropriate for beginners.
Step by Step: Stand with the feet wide, several feet apart. Turn the right toes out 90 degrees. Raise the arms to shoulder height, palms facing down. Place the right hand on the right thigh. Exhale and bend to the right, sliding the right hand down the right leg. Reach the left arm up and look up toward the hand. Stay in the pose for several breaths. To come out of Triangle pose, engage the abdominal muscles, inhale, and rise. Repeat on the other side.
- Mohan, A. G. and Indra Mohan. Yoga Therapy. Boston: Shambhala, 2004.
- Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Bihar: Yoga Publications Trust, 1999.
- Photos by Julie Bernier.